Missouri town names steeped in lore

Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 12:01 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Missouri town names are as varied as the cities themselves and the people who live in them. They reflect early families, emotions, events, locations, trees or plants, animals and even patriotism.

Bolivar was named for a liberator, Ponce de Leon for an explorer, Buffalo for a prairie that was named for an animal and Elkland for the abundant number of elk antlers early settlers found.

Settlers sometimes named their new homes for places they left behind — thus the repeated use of some like Springfield — or for their new surroundings like Walnut Grove. Many post offices were named for the postmasters or families in whose stores or homes the office was located. The communities took the same name.

Others were in honor of a significant person or happening in the town's beginning. Rogersville was named for the town's doctor, Nixa for a blacksmith and Aurora for the northern lights.

Still others, including some of the most unique or humorous, were born of residents' frustration with the post office department when name after name they submitted was turned down because another town in the state had already taken it.

An example is Protem. After several submissions were rejected, the post office department told townspeople they could use any name "pro tem" until they made up their minds.

Peculiar's name also came about after several unsuccessful attempts. The government suggested they pick something "peculiar" — so they did.

It is generally accepted that Ozark got its name from the French "aux arcs." Arcs means "bend" and Ozark lies along a bend in the Finley River. Another theory is that French-Canadian trappers called the region of the Arkansas mountains Aux Arcs, which evolved into the Ozarks, for which the town was named.

Early settlers on the high plain where Aurora is now located saw an amazing — and unusual in this area — display of the aurora borealis when they arrived; thus the name, said Mary Strickrodt, president of the Aurora Historical Society.

Rogersville was born after the railroad that came through in 1882 missed the then thriving town of Henderson by less than two miles. A town began to grow around the railroad refueling station. A local physician named Isaac Newton Rogers offered to donate $50 to survey and lay out the town if they would name it for him.

Humansville was named for James B. Human, who founded the town in 1834. According to the Polk County Sesquicentennial album, Human served as a county judge and in 1850 was a state legislator.

Missouri has no monopoly on unusual names. Hundreds from across the country are listed on the Internet including What Cheer, Iowa; Lizard Lick, N.C.; and Bug Tussle, Okla. The world can only boast of one Nixa — or Nixie, as the old timers call it.

There's only one other entity that even comes close, local historian and author Wayne Glenn says.

"Just Google 'nixapye' and you'll get a record company in England," he said.

In existence as a settlement called Faught since before the Civil War, the Missouri town has only been Nixa since 1881, when the post office department required citizens to give the town a legal name. However, it was still known as Faught and shown as such on official maps for years along with nearby towns of Billings, Kenton (Linden), Ozark, Republic and Highlandville.

In the early 1800s, pioneer Wiley B. Faught donated land and established the first school and church in the area about a mile north of what is now North Main and North streets where his son, James J. Faught, built and operated a store.

At least two theories have circulated as to how Nixa was named.

"It's my belief Nixa was first called Faught because of the school and church," said Glenn, who agrees with the most popular story that the town was actually named for local blacksmith Nicholas Alexander Inman. A church elder and school director, Inman was called "Uncle Nick."

State Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa, noted another story is floating around about Nixa being named for its cross roads, but he also goes along with the Inman story.

"The stories I've heard were that everyone liked him," said Wasson. "One day a bunch of men were sitting around talking about what they should call the town. Nick walked by and someone said, 'Let's just name it for Nick.'"

They made a play on Inman's nickname — Nix — and his middle initial, 'a.' Thus, Nixa.

Glenn offered another possible scenario. "When discussing what to name the town someone said, 'Let's nix it.'"

In his book "Mid the Hills, History of Nixa 1835-2001," Glenn explains, "'Nix' is a slang word meaning nothing or unimportant from the German 'niets.'"

The Faughts definitely started the village with the first store, said Glenn, but it was named for Nicholas Inman.

"Henry Stewart, the first postmaster, and his wife were the ones who gave the town its name," he added.

Eloise Flood and Geneva Faught's late husband Cletus are direct descendants of the Faught family. They expressed appreciation that the Faught name will live on in Nixa thanks to the school district naming the newly remodeled administration center for Wiley B. Faught.

Glenn said James Faught is also important to Nixa because he carried a petition to the county to build a road to the Dutch Store where Highlandville is now. The previous road was no more than a trail called Wilderness Road.

"He wanted a road that was maintained," Glenn said. "It ran pretty close to where 160 is now ... and went right past his store. That road is what gave Nixa life."

Fast forward 150 or so years and find that Nixa has made it to Hollywood. In the final scene of the movie "The Bourne Supremacy" — the second in the series after "The Bourne Identity" — the character Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, learns his real name is David Webb and that he was born in Nixa, Mo.

Bolivar is the largest of at least seven other towns in the United States named for Simon Bolivar, who in the early 1800s liberated Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela from Spain.

In 1829, when Bolivar was at the height of his fame, brothers John Polk Campbell and Ezekiel Madison Campbell came to the present Springfield area from Bolivar, Tenn. They staked out claims before returning for their families.

The Campbells were first cousins to President James K. Polk who took office in 1845.

John Campbell returned in 1830, settled and a few years later laid out Springfield.

Ezekiel Campbell returned with another brother, William, in 1832 and moved north to present day Polk County. They named their new settlement after the town they left in Tennessee.

They convinced other settlers to name their newly established county after their grandfather, Col. Ezekiel Polk of Tennessee, who had fought with George Washington during the Revolutionary War, according to Ezekiel Campbell's great-grandson, also named John Polk Campbell, and his wife, Neita, of Bolivar.

Ezekiel Campbell was active in getting Bolivar named county seat, but William hoped his own settlement, called New Market and located near where Aldrich is today, would be chosen. Groups from both factions vigorously campaigned for the county seat choice.

An entry by the county clerk on Nov. 10, 1835, read: "The permanent seat of justice shall be known and called by the name of Bolivar." However, it did not mention the exact location.

"There was no mail service at the time in that area so they had a horse race to see who would be the first to reach Jefferson City with the commission's decision ... It was assumed that Bolivar won," said Neita Campbell with a laugh.

The horse race story is widely accepted, but no official record is known.

"Folklore that gets handed down is so much more colorful than recorded history," said John Campbell.

One of the biggest days in Bolivar's history was July 4, 1948, when a statue of Simon Bolivar was unveiled in Neuhart Park — a gift from the Republic of Venezuela to the city of Bolivar.

On hand for the ceremony were President Harry S. Truman, Venezuelan President Romulo Gallegos and an estimated crowd of 15,000 to 20,000. Venezuela also gave the city a bust of Simon Bolivar for inside the courthouse, Neita Campbell said.

A community celebration called Simon Bolivar Days is held each Fourth of July weekend.

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